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Mixing art with human rights

Alumni News

Three days after completing her Master of Human Rights dissertation, artist Alexandra Devitt-Lansom was inundated with job offers. There was a common thread: each offer required her to use her artistry and her strong understandings of cultures she learned in her degree.

Tutti visual arts Barossa group painting the wall mural at the Co-op Shopping Centre in Nuriootpa, South Australia, with Barossa artist, Marnie Wark.
Alexandra Devitt-Lansom's Tutti visual arts Barossa group painting the wall mural at the Co-op Shopping Centre in Nuriootpa, South Australia, with Barossa artist, Marnie Wark.

A force for change in the Barossa

The glass and metal artist works in a mixture of part-time positions that see her engaging with her community in the Barossa Valley on a daily basis.

She is an arts and cultural facilitator for Country Arts SA and for Regional Development Australia – roles that have enabled her to help increase awareness of Reconciliation Day in her community, with 400 people attending the local event in 2018, compared to less than 100 people in previous years.

She is also the Line Manager for Tutti Arts Barossa Visual Arts program, which has allowed her to support local artists with disabilities to pursue their passion, by creating opportunities for them to take part in public exhibitions and to create public art murals and sculptures.

“It’s been a whirlwind. Lots of people knew what I was studying and I think it opened their mind that employing someone with my background could help their business be more noticeable and more in line with contemporary conversations about human rights,” Devitt-Lansom reveals.

“I have a number of roles, but they all cross over. My main duty is to bring the arts to everyone within the Barossa and other nearby regions, while embracing social justice concerns.”

Why study human rights?

The decision for Devitt-Lansom, a highly exhibited South Australian artist, to study human rights at a Western Australian university might seem unusual, but to her it made perfect sense.

At the time, as part of her arts practice, Devitt-Lansom was increasingly working with people with disabilities, Indigenous people and people from multicultural backgrounds, which gave her a desire to learn more about Australia and its various cultural groups.

Discovering that she could study a Master of Human Rights at Curtin – the University where she had studied her undergraduate degree in fine art in Perth years earlier – sealed the deal.

“I actually just wanted to understand the country I live in better,” Devitt-Lansom admits.

“My arts practice and my life in general has always been around social justice issues and trying to answer unfair questions about why some people are treated differently to others.

“At the time, Curtin was the only university in Australia that offered a human rights masters outside of a law degree. When I decided to study it, I was told by many that I was mad.”

With two young children, a farm and her own arts studio to think about, Devitt-Lansom made the decision to stay in South Australia and study the degree online in a part-time capacity.

Working towards reconciliation

The Sorry Plate, against a black backdrop.

Sorry Plate, designed by Alexandra Devitt-Lansom.

There were several emotional hurdles Devitt-Lansom had to overcome as part of her degree, many of which grew out of her personally focused dissertation that explored how a descendant of Irish colonisers could work towards reconciliation in a visual arts practice.

In addition to reflecting on her own family history, the dissertation required Devitt-Lansom to investigate how government policies had historically affected Indigenous Australians and how Australian artists had historically depicted reconciliation efforts.

Devitt-Lansom’s own contribution was a series of ‘offerings’ – beautiful artworks she created that she would go on to donate to Indigenous Australians to ‘say sorry’.

“My main artwork was the Sorry Plate. It is a glass black platter with white powder glass, which has got my fingerprints all over it. The black and white represents both black Indigenous people and white colonisers. I inscribed the word ‘sorry’ underneath to apologise for the effects of colonisation,” Devitt-Lansom explains.

“I actually gifted the sorry plate to my supervisor, Julie Dowling, who is a brilliant Badimaya painter in Western Australia and an activist in recognising Indigenous rights globally, to thank her and to acknowledge the harm of colonisation forced on her people.

“As my dissertation states: the first step towards reconciliation is to say sorry, the second is to recognise the harm done and the third is to do something to make things right.”

Devitt-Lansom says she would encourage anyone interested in addressing social justice concerns to consider studying a human rights postgraduate degree.

“Human rights is a really personal subject. This course has given me so much pride, knowledge and understanding of the world I live in. It changes your world view,” she says.

Graduate snapshot

Name: Alexandra Devitt-Lansom

Studied: Master of Human Rights
Graduated: 2018

Studied: Bachelor of Arts (Art)
Related: Bachelor of Creative Arts (Fine Art)
Graduated: 1998

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